For this year’s Persephone Reading Weekend (hosted by Claire and Verity), I decided to read one of the newest additions to my Persephone Book collection, The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, which I received from Caroline as part of the Persephone Secret Santa exchange this past year. I believe this was also among the first Persephones I ever added to my wishlist, thanks to Simon. And what a wonderful book it is!
The opening chapters offer a downright harrowing picture of suburban family life, circa the 1920s. What’s harrowing about it is not that it’s outrageously terrible—it’s that it’s so familiar. There’s a miserable housewife who can run her home perfectly but not without feeling burdened by her own high standards. There’s the father who goes every day to a job he doesn’t much like and can’t do well enough to earn the money that will make his family financially secure and help him feel emotionally secure. Each of the three children seems to suffer from one malady or another, whether it’s a nervous stomach or an unending mischievous streak. No one is happy, and it doesn’t look like anything is going to change.
But change they do. And those changes lead to a thoughtful (and sometimes amusing) examination of how adherence to traditional views of gender roles might actually be doing harm to the entire family. You see, Lester has a domestic side and gift for nurture that Evangeline lacks. The house always runs beautifully under her watch, perhaps too beautifully, but that’s because she’s such an excellent manager of details. In making sure there were no spots on the kitchen floor, Evangeline failed to take time to listen to her children. Lester, on the other hand, is brilliant at setting domestic priorities. His standards may not be as high as his wife’s, but the house is a happier one when he’s in charge. And for her part, Evangeline finds that her eye for detail is a great asset in the workplace.
Even though this book was written in 1924, the ideas within it are absolutely relevant today. Sadly, the debates about who ought to be responsible for child-rearing and housekeeping have continued, and most often, it’s the women who take on the bulk of these domestic responsibilities. What’s refreshing about Fisher’s approach is that she shows how a narrow view of gender roles is just as damaging to men as it is to women. Lester is absolutely ground down by the necessity to earn an income at a job he hates. His entire self-worth is wrapped up in his ability to be a good financial provider. Not being able to do so is positively devastating.
In the introduction to the Persephone edition, Karen Knox notes that Fisher actually characterized The Home-Maker as a book about children’s rights, rather than a book about women’s rights. This is a story of children’s right to be cared for by the best person available. Evangeline loves the children, but she lacks the patience for them. Lester is absolutely the best person to care for these children. He considers their needs at every turn, looking at each one as an individual and taking joy in his time with them. The conventional way of doing things worked against the children. It’s lucky for the Knapps that what was best for the children was the best for everyone.
Although I enjoyed this book immensely, it did leave me feeling rather sad. The Knapp family of this book was able to find a way for everyone to be happy and have their needs met. They were lucky that one parent did love earning a salary out in the workforce and another loved spending all day at home. And they were lucky that the one income was enough for maintaining a comfortable lifestyle. Many families are not nearly so lucky, even today; and Fisher’s answer may come across as a little too pie-in-the-sky. But I doubt that Fisher’s aim was to present an in-depth analysis of how families must live. She’s just opening readers’ eyes to how the nontraditional way may in fact be the best for everyone. It’s sad that, more than 85 years later, it still needs to be said.